Youth in Revolt

The Thunder are a bunch of kids with a dream. But does their age even matter?
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Illustration by Rachel B. Glaser

By standard NBA logic, the Oklahoma City Thunder should not be where they are today. In a league where experience is seen as a prerequisite for success, the Thunder have dispatched three veteran-laden West contenders with a young core of four players aged 23 or younger. It’s an accomplishment unprecedented in this era, and the NBA world has bought into the youth movement due to their success.

Where that puts the Thunder in the typical NBA championship narrative is unclear. We expect most teams to follow a prescribed path: a few years of playoff berths and modest success, followed by a run of conference finals or NBA finals, capped off by the ultimate breakthrough to a championship. The Thunder have experienced that journey at lightspeed, moving from the high lottery to a first-round exit to a conference finals appearance to this season’s greater success in only three seasons’ time. Frankly, it’s been a little startling, enough so to disrupt the typical string of platitudes that attend the championship favorite. The Thunder haven’t been here before, or even seen enough failures to be particularly battle-tested. Instead, they’re just really good at an age when most players are concerned about signing their first contract extensions. And so their current run has the potential to become a referendum on the place of youth in the NBA. If they beat the Heat, the expectations for (and perhaps belief in) every young core in the league becomes that much greater. Suddenly, the Thunder would become a new model for instant success.

Falling to Miami, on the other hand, would serve as a fatalistic reminder of one of the NBA’s great presumed truths: that youngsters must wait their turn. Michael Jordan did it, LeBron James continues to do it, and even early champions like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant had to saddle up with established stars who had done it, like David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal. It’s the NBA’s own variation on the monomyth: every great player must undergo a lengthy trial before coming out on the other side a hero.

That such a strong storyline could be undone over the course of one series helps underline just how limiting the entire idea is. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka are the Thunder’s four best players, but they’ve also led a charmed basketball life, coming together through a bit of superb management and a system catered to their specific strengths and weaknesses. In many ways, what the Thunder have done is irreproducible. Then again, the fact that it’s happened proves that such an accelerated franchise development isn’t impossible or fundamentally unsound. A youth movement can work, given the right circumstances, and that a championship team can come to pass in many forms.

Beyond its copycat tendencies, the NBA has a colorful and varied philosophical history. Franchises have become dynasties and mini-dynasties constructed as superteams, inside-outside tandems, big man-focused star vehicles, glorified five-man communes, wing duos—you name it, it’s probably worked at some point. Trends develop over certain eras and often become bits of perceived wisdom that hang around beyond their usefulness (never trade a big for a small, for one). A championship for the Thunder this season would simply be another example of a plan that can lead to the greatest glory. In upending the old narrative, it would create a new one for future franchises to follow. And then, as if part of the waste loop, that narrative would be disproven by another, only to be repurposed years later when it proves effective yet again.

The Thunder, for their part, could care less about how well they correlate to an established narrative of NBA champions, or the extent to which the result in this series would determine how many combined years of service a roster needs to be worthy of a title. Once you got past the Hallmark-ready platitudes about the Thunder being a humble bunch of nice boys, one of the greatest things about the team is their blatant disregard for established league hierarchy and comportment, evident in both Durant’s intense competitive drive or Westbrook’s reliance on an offensive game seemingly inspired by the roving marauders of The Road Warrior.

Like most great teams, they create their own reality, accruing accomplishments with a moment-to-moment focus that only looks like a coherent narrative in retrospect. Sam Presti approached his job with a plan, but there has always been room for contingencies and opportunities within it—he didn’t look at previous success stories and outline the Thunder’s path to this moment with storyboards and plot trees.

As fans, we create a Thunder narrative (or graft them onto one we already know) because it’s an easy way to make sense of what they’ve accomplished to this point and how they operate in a historical context. That narrative is somewhat prescribed but also ever-mutating, dependent more on hindsight than the predictive value of their current status.

The entire question of their youth foregrounds this dilemma: if they win, they’re a paragon of vigor and energy; if they lose, they’re not quite ready yet, just as we expected all along. We hew to a narrative but can’t possibly know if it will play out until does—and, by then, we’ve already jumped over to a different storyline to organize those new developments. It’s a game of constant shifts in expectation and possibility, of staying ahead of a hindsight that won’t come until the team is no longer relevant.

That description makes basketball narrativity out to be one big school of red herring, the sort of constant legend-creation that distracts from what really matters. The Thunder are what they are, no matter what we say, and we should assess them on those terms. But to reject narrative as a trifle is to discard storytelling as a method of processing the world. Millennia of myths and legends suggest that’s impossible. Narrative will always be present in some form—the key is to approach it as a loose framework for events rather than a strict schema. A system that organizes thought shouldn’t substitute for those opinions themselves. It’s a study guide, not an expression of doctrine.

The Thunder, then, are not on the brink of deciding the place of youth in the contemporary NBA. Their success up until this point has already done that—making the NBA Finals (and beating a very impressive Spurs team on the way) has proven that they have a valid approach to winning games, no matter how replicable it might be. The outcome of this series only serves as a verdict on their methods only insofar as we choose to conceive of every team as beholden to a set of rules rather than a creative attempt at victory.

If we decide youth was served only if the Thunder win a championship, then that’s a product of hindsight, not the experience of their run. And yet the narrative produced by that title would not be useless or even a distraction from what they accomplished. Employed properly, with a sense of the how close they were to playing out the very different narrative we expect young players to follow, the story of this year’s Thunder could serve to highlight another potential avenue for triumphant basketball. We must only approach that narrative as one point in a constellation of possibilities, not a lone star to guide us to a specific destination.


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